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When I am afraid

Fear is a common human emotion. The coronavirus pandemic has created sustained fear in the hearts of many people, especially the elderly, who are afraid to leave their homes in case they catch the virus. Some people I know have not left their homes since last March.

Fear can protect us from danger. Parents use fear in a positive way to teach their children to be careful when crossing the road or not to touch electric sockets in case they receive a shock. It is helpful for people to be aware that the coronavirus is easily transmitted and, in some cases, produces serious illness and even death. It is wise to be afraid of enclosed spaces, crowds, and close contact with others, especially those who may have the virus.

Fear can also paralyse us and prevent us from coping with daily life. So, it’s really important to know how to cope with fear. The psalms of David help us to know how to handle our fears. In Psalm 56, which he wrote when his enemies had captured him and his life was in danger, he says, “When I am afraid, I will put my trust in you. I praise God for what he has promised. I trust in God, so why should I be afraid?” Instead of being overcome by fear, he put his trust in God’s promise that he would be king. When we are afraid, we can put our trust in God.

When we are afraid, we can also pray for God’s help and protection. A few weeks ago, some good friends were in a very difficult situation with the virus. The husband is elderly and vulnerable. His wife is caring for him with the help of a team of carers who come into their home every day. One of the carers contracted coronavirus and, soon after their son, who lives with them also picked up the virus at work. All we could do was to pray for God’s protection for the couple and God graciously heard our prayers. When we are afraid, we can pray to God.

In Psalm 23 David speaks of his confidence in the Lord, who was his shepherd, even when facing death. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” Despite the excellent care of doctors and nurses, good friends have died from coronavirus, and their families had only been able to visit them at the very end, but they, like David feared no evil because the Lord was with them.

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A father to the fatherless

The Bible teaches us that God is deeply concerned for vulnerable people, and especially widows and orphans. In the Law he commands, “Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless.” The book of Psalms says, “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.” The prophet Isaiah reminded the people of their responsibilities before God, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” In the New Testament, James tells us that true religion is practical, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

Wilfried Zaha is a very skilful and successful footballer. He plays for Crystal Palace in the Premier League and internationally for Ivory Coast. Recently he spoke about being homeless when he was 6 years old. One day an older brother met him from school and took him to a shelter where his whole family was now staying. His family had lost their home. Later they stayed with relatives until they were given a three-bedroomed house where the family of 11 people lived. Wilfried shared a bedroom with his 5 brothers. He says, “I have been that kid who had nothing and now I have the opportunity to help people, so why not?”

When he was 16 Wilfried signed his first professional contract and vowed to donate 10% of his earnings to an orphanage in Daloa, Ivory Coast, called “Tomorrow’s Hope”, that is run by his sister, Carine. He says, “Me and my mum would pray and say to God, ‘You have done this for me, I am going to give back’. My family, especially my mum, are heavily Christian, so it felt like a duty to help. I feel like my life is a testament to God helping me – 100 per cent. So as soon as I was able to help, I helped. That’s why, with everything that’s going on now, if I have the opportunity to help out, then it’s a no-brainer.”

Wilfried doesn’t like speaking about donating a percentage of his wages to the orphanage, “I haven’t spoken about it much, because it’s a duty for me. I have been there, and I just want to help. I thank God he blessed me with the opportunity to be a footballer and now I have the things I couldn’t have as a child.”

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The God who gives hope

As we enter a new year one of our great needs is to find hope. The problems of our world are great and there are no easy solutions. In our personal lives and families, we may be experiencing sadness and pain. On Christmas Day a good friend died of Covid-19. Even the dark, damp days tend to depress us. So, we don’t find it easy to be optimistic.

Real hope is found in God. Secular humanism, which is energetically promoted by some and implicitly accepted by others, offers no hope. The Apostle Paul prayed a remarkable prayer for the early Christians in Rome, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him.” This is a prayer we can make our own for the coming year as we put our trust in the God of hope. How does God give us hope whatever our circumstances may be?

God helps us to deal with the past. Memories of the past can cast a long shadow over the future. All of us have reason to be troubled by our past sins. Other people may also have done bad things to us. We need to find forgiveness and to be able to forgive. In Jesus God provided a way for us to be forgiven. When Jesus died he suffered the punishment our sins deserve. The moment we receive Jesus as our Saviour we are forgiven and have nothing to fear. Through experiencing God’s forgiveness, we also find the grace to forgive others.

God promises to provide our present needs. As we enter a new year, we may be anxious about how we will be able cope financially and pay the bills. We may have lost, or be in danger of losing, our job. What a difference it makes to be able to pray to God and to trust him to provide all our needs. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Our Father in heaven, give us this day our daily bread.” God knows our needs. We can bring all our anxieties to him and trust him to help us.

God gives us hope for the future. None of us knows what will happen in the coming year. All may go well, or we may face serious illness or even death. Jesus is a living Lord who gives us a certain hope whatever happens. When we trust in him, he promises, “Because I live you will live also.” Nothing that happens can rob us of the hope Jesus gives us as we put our trust in him.

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The light shines in darkness

Are you one of those people who really looks forward to Christmas? It’s a special time as the Christmas celebrations brighten up the long dark days of winter. It’s a joy to gather our family and friends together to spend quality time with each other. But, because of Covid-19, Christmas 2020 will be different. Although some restrictions have been eased large family gatherings are not permitted. People are getting ready for a “digital” Christmas.

Yet the wonderful thing about Christmas is that, whatever our circumstances, the Person who is at the centre of it all can fill our lives with joy and peace and hope. Jesus Christ was born in a lowly stable in busy Bethlehem in the middle of winter. Hardly anyone noticed as his teenage mother gave birth to her first-born son, but the birth of Jesus shone light into a dark world and that same light still shines into the darkness that sometimes invades our lives. Phillips Brooks’ carol “O little town of Bethlehem” says, “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

The world into which Jesus was born was evil and dangerous. Not long after he was born, King Herod tried to kill him and wickedly ordered that all the little boys aged two years or under in Bethlehem and its vicinity should be slaughtered. Many mothers were broken hearted at the loss of their babies and little children. The young Jesus only escaped the slaughter because Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt for safety, taking him with them, and remained there until Herod died.

Thankfully, when Christmas focuses on Jesus it is can never be diminished or cancelled. In fact, the wonderful message about Jesus speaks powerfully into the darkest places of our lives. Seven hundred years before his birth the prophet Isaiah wrote, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Phillips Brooks’ carol closes with a prayer, “O holy Child of Bethlehem descend to us we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell. O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Immanuel.”

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Bobby Ball’s Story

The comedian Bobby Ball died recently from Covid-19 complications. He and his partner Tommy Cannon hosted the very successful Cannon and Ball show from 1979 to 1988 with an audience of 18 million people. Bobby was born Robert Harper in 1944 at Shaw, a village near Oldham. His father’s family had been fairground workers and his mother worked in a cotton factory. Bobby took a job as a welder at Boden Trailers where he met Tommy. They appeared as a musical act on the talent show Opportunity Knocks and came last, so they decided to turn to comedy.

The success and wealth Bobby and Tommy experienced created stress on their friendship. Between 1983 and 1986 they did not speak to each other outside rehearsals and performances. By 1986 Bobby, disillusioned with the shallow world of show business, hit rock bottom. He said, “I was famous, and it meant nothing to me, it felt quite trivial, I was drinking a lot and womanising.”

Then in 1986, while working at the Bradford Alhambra, Bobby began talking with chaplain Max Wrigley. Bobby said: “I got talking to him and attacked him verbally about God. But he had a peace about him. I can’t explain exactly what he had but he had something that I didn’t have. One day I asked to speak to him and after a while he said, ‘Let’s pray.’ I’d never prayed in my life, but we prayed and it just changed my life – just like that.” Six months later his wife, Yvonne, also become a Christian.

Becoming a Christian helped to re-kindle Bobby’s broken friendship with Tommy and, in 1992, Tommy also became a Christian. In 1996 they co-authored a book “Christianity for Beginners” and spent time every year visiting churches and sharing the good news about their Saviour, Jesus Christ. When Bobby was asked what impact Jesus Christ had had on his life, he immediately answered “Being a Christian? It doesn’t have an impact. It gives you a new life. It doesn’t impact it; it turns it totally around.”

When Bobby accepted Jesus Christ as his Saviour in 1986, he received the gift of eternal life. Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Eternal life begins now and continues after death in eternal happiness in heaven with Jesus who said, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.”

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Through my own fault

Frank Bough, who died recently, was described by his colleagues as a “consummate broadcaster”. For many years he presented BBC’s Saturday afternoon sports programme, Grandstand, and later the early-evening news programme Nationwide. His calmness and easy style made him very popular and, in 1983, he was chosen to present the BBC’s new breakfast show which became a great success.

Frank was a very able man. He grew up in Shropshire and was educated at Oswestry High School from where he went to Merton College, Oxford. He won a football Blue as a centre half, played county hockey for Shropshire and played league cricket. However, his career with the BBC came to a sudden end in 1988 when tabloid newspapers exposed sexual indiscretions and drug taking in his private life. In 1992, following further revelations of his private life, Frank said, “A lot of men are stupid. I am among the most stupid. The prime object now is to keep the family together.” With the loving support of his wife and three sons, Frank survived these crises and continued to work for Sky and ITV.

In 2001 Frank was diagnosed with cancer, had a liver transplant and retired from broadcasting. Looking back on his experiences he said, “The pain never, never goes away. I will never, never forget it. Having said all that, I have to say very loudly, ‘Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.’” This Latin phrase means, “Through my own fault, through my most grievous fault.”

As I read about Frank’s life a parable of Jesus came to mind which tells of two men going to the Temple to pray. One was a proud, religious leader who in his prayer told God what a good man he was. The other man was a tax collector who had betrayed his own people by collecting taxes for the hated Romans who occupied Israel. The tax collector would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God have mercy on me a sinner.” The tax collector was in a place to which we must all come if we are to know God and experience his forgiveness. All of us have sinned; we all “fall short of God’s glorious standard”, and it’s our own fault. Jesus’ conclusion of the parable is good news for all who feel the deep pain of their past sins. He said that God heard the tax collector’s prayer and that very day he went home forgiven and in a right relationship with God.

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When you pray, I will listen

Yesterday morning my wife and I attended the first service in our local church building since 15 March. It was good to see our friends again, but it was very different. Normally there would be more than 100 people of all ages present, but yesterday we were only 25 because of government restrictions on church services. We queued to enter the building, used hand sanitiser on the way in and out of the service, sat at 2 metres distance and wore face masks. We were not allowed to sing the hymns, but simply followed the words. After the service we spoke briefly to others in the congregation through our masks and at a distance and then went home.

When Tony Blair was Prime Minister his most senior advisers prevented him from discussing his faith in public. During one interview, at the time of the second Iraq war, a journalist asked Mr Blair about his religious faith. Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair’s director of strategy and communications, an atheist, intervened, “Is he on God? I’m sorry we don’t do God.” When he was preparing to speak to the nation on the eve of hostilities in Iraq, Mr Blair was also told he must not end his speech with “God bless you.”

During the Covid-19 pandemic our political leaders have made no reference to faith in God and the need to pray for his gracious intervention. We are “following the science” even though it has become increasingly clear that the scientists don’t agree with each other and are fallible. Yet during the past 6 months nearly 400,000 people have caught the virus and more than 40,000 have died. Many are anxious and afraid.

Our need to know God is greater than ever and many people, especially the young, sense it. In the summer Tearfund, a Christian aid agency, commissioned a survey in which 25% of adults in the UK said they had watched or listened to a religious service since lockdown began and many had started praying. A third of young adults aged between 18 and 34 had watched or listened to an online or broadcast religious service, as had one in five adults over 55. One in five of those who tuned into services said they had never gone to church. In a time of national crisis many years ago God spoke to his people through the prophet Jeremiah and gave them a wonderful promise which is still true today, “When you pray, I will listen. If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you.”

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Baby Asher

The birth of a first child is an occasion for great joy. In June Pete and Grace, who work at Hebron School in India, rejoiced in the birth of their son Asher and their families and friends rejoiced with them. When he was five weeks old Asher was taken ill with vomiting and admitted to hospital with septic shock. Doctors discovered a twisted bowel which, sadly, could not be saved except for just 6 centimetres. Where he was in India basic treatment like replacement nutrition was not feasible.

When we were first sent news about Asher, in early August, we were asked to pray for him and Pete and Grace, because the medical team at the hospital had, reluctantly, decided to turn off his life support the following morning. However, when morning came the medical team reviewed Asher’s situation and saw that, apart from the very serious problem with his bowel, he was otherwise healthy, bright and alert. So, it was decided to continue to care for him and to seek possible places where he could be treated.

Pete, who is from the UK, discovered that there are hospitals in England that could treat Asher either by lengthening his bowel or by a small intestine transplant and that these hospitals would be willing to treat Asher. But there was one big problem – finance. There would be no charge for Asher’s treatment in England but transferring him on a special medical plane from India to England would cost £102,000, and there would also be other costs. It was decided to pray that God would provide the finance and to set up a crowdfunding page. Wonderfully, gifts have been received from thousands of people around the world to cover the costs of bringing Asher to England and he is now at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford.

When we experience trials in our own life, or in the lives of those we love, we, too, can pray to God for his gracious help and he will hear our prayers. Even when the way ahead is full of uncertainties, we can commit our way to him and trust him. The kindness and practical care of other people, who may be strangers to us, is a great encouragement. Every human life is precious to God, however small and vulnerable. And, amazingly, the God to whom we pray is the One who “so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

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The next life is better than this life

A good friend of mine has just died from cancer. A few weeks ago, he saw his consultant who told him he could give him no more treatment. My friend realised it was not easy for any doctor to give someone that kind of news. He thanked the consultant for all he and his staff had done in treating him and said, “I’ve been a Christian for many years, and I believe that the next life is better than this life.”

During the pandemic we have been very thankful for the doctors and nurses who have shown great dedication and skill in caring for the sick and dying. In care homes, staff have provided excellent care to their elderly residents. However, there has been a serious absence of spiritual ministry in hospitals and care homes. Such ministry is very important for both patients and staff. Ministers and other religious leaders have been unable to visit their people at a time when they were experiencing fear and deep anxiety as they faced the prospect of dying. Many have experienced profound isolation and loneliness.

In my ministry one of the great privileges has been to visit people who are seriously ill and to comfort them through reading the Bible and praying for them. I have sat with families at the bedside of a dying relative. We have read the Bible and prayed and quietly sung hymns as the loved one has passed into eternity. As they fell asleep in Jesus, we were comforted in knowing that they had woken up in the very presence of God and were more alive than ever.

When he was in lonely exile for his faithfulness to Jesus the elderly Apostle John was given a beautiful vision of heaven. He wrote, “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’ They are before the throne of God and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

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Holidays and holy days

The holiday season this year is different. For some months many people have not been going to their place work either because they were on furlough or were working at home. Schools and universities have been closed. Until recently, travel restrictions have made it difficult to book a holiday. As restrictions have been eased there has been a rush to book self-catering in the UK. Some have travelled to Europe on holiday, but now face an unexpected period of quarantine when they return.

The word holiday comes from an Old English word meaning “holy day”. Many holidays were linked to special religious days. This is still true of Christmas and Easter. In the Old Testament the great annual feasts were times to remember great events in the spiritual history of the nation. The Feast of Passover remembered the Exodus from Egypt when God delivered his people from slavery. The Feast of Tabernacles remembered God’s provision for and protection of his people during the 40 years in the wilderness.

In our increasingly secular society, our essentially spiritual nature as human beings has been marginalised. During the Covid-19 pandemic church buildings have been closed and spiritual leaders have been all but invisible. A notice on the locked door of a rural church in England informed people that the church building was closed and that they could pray to God anywhere “but not here.” People dying in hospital have often had no visits from a chaplain and funeral services have been attended by only a handful of family members and the funeral director and his staff.

We all need times for rest and reflection that holidays provide. From the beginning of time God provided a weekly day of rest for all people and commanded us “to keep the sabbath day holy.” Sadly, in the Western world Sunday is now “just another day.” When our children were growing up Sunday was their favourite day because we all went to church together and enjoyed a different kind of day with time to be together and to rest.

At a time when every day we are told about our fellow human beings who have died it’s also important to take time to reflect on eternity. The Bible describes heaven as a place of rest in the presence of God. In the book of Revelation John writes, “Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labour, for their deeds will follow them.’”